Opening exactly one week after the horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead at the hands of radical ISIS-affiliated jihadists, the best French film of the year is a stirring marvel about five young Muslim girls rebelling against social and religious extremism in their homeland.
Given the alarmist and xenophobic rhetoric currently infiltrating the national debate over how America welcomes Syrian refugees fleeing terrorism and persecution from across the globe, France’s Oscar entry is a vital portrait of the extreme despair and utterly human hopefulness that propels those in need—yearning to breathe free—away from repressive societies and toward the promise of Liberté, Egalité, fraternité.
The wild-maned creatures of Mustang are five vibrant orphaned sisters who find their lives upended the day they cross the threshold into young womanhood. Walking home along the beach as school lets out for the summer, Turkish teenagers Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), and Lale, the youngest (Güneş Şensoy), cavort innocently in the surf with male classmates but pay a high price once they reach home.
The neighbors in their conservative patriarchal village have reported the girls’ innocuous play as scandalous, their changing bodies alone a threat to the community’s strict social decorum. “You’re depraved!” their grandmother scolds, beating them one by one ostensibly for their own good, but more out of her own perceived failure to raise them “correctly.” The three eldest are taken straight to the hospital to ensure their hymens are still intact—but that’s nothing compared to the nightmare in store for the sisters simply because of their gender.
The directorial debut from Ankara-born Deniz Gamze Erguven has also been chosen as France’s official Foreign Oscar nominee, and deservedly so. The Turkish-language French-Turkish-German co-production is as confident and charming as it is heartbreaking, a coming-of-age feminist fairy tale told from the perspective of the rambunctious Lale (a captivatingly willful Şensoy). It’s through Lale’s eyes that we witness the resignation of her older sisters as the girls are forced to move in under the iron rule of their severe uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan), who boards the house up like a prison, takes the girls out of school, and, as Lale describes in voice over, turns their home into “a wife factory.”
Within these oppressive castle walls, these free-spirited princesses are stifled by the patriarchal mores that still, in many parts of the predominantly Muslim country, deprive women of education, marital choice, and essential rights. Ordered to wear skin-covering “shapeless, shit-colored dresses” in public, the girls let loose at home, often barely clothed, as the camera flits over their bodies, intertwined as innocently as a pile of puppies. Making gorgeous work out of some stunningly naturalistic cinematography, Mustang captures the idyllic beauty of its Turkish setting along the Black Sea, filled with winding mountain roads and lush forests that increasingly represent the natural born freedoms these girls can no longer enjoy.
They rebel—and often—in several episodes that border on plot convenience but nevertheless ratchet up the tensions between the sisters’ resistance to their constricted lives and the dwindling power they have over their own futures. A narrowly orchestrated group escape to a football match that only female patrons may attend leads to a rare moment in which the older women of the family betray any sympathy for the strong-willed youngsters. Lale often wonders how she can flee to modernized Istanbul, 600 miles away, where in her mind anyone can run away to if they really want.
Each girl exhibits a different understanding of the life sentence she’s been doomed to. Sonay, the oldest, has discovered sex, but mindful that any bride will be subjected to a “virginity report” before marriage, finds a way around it not taught in the honeymoon handbooks. When the girls whisper that they’ll be “killed” if they’re caught sneaking out of the house, it feels like a real possibility in a rural conservative region where violence against women has plagued the country for decades.
Lale is the youngest, and is therefore more naïve to the fact that there are few ways out of the indentured servitude their grandmother and aunts have in store for their girls. Forced by their elders into traditions that depersonalize and dehumanize them into assets to be passed off and owned, two sisters are promised into arranged marriages with the same pitch (“She’s one of a kind!”) in the blink of an afternoon tea. One, gratefully, is allowed to marry the boy she loves. The other assents to her own quiet hell, wedded to a man she barely knows, and is immediately subjected to the humiliation of having her in-laws inspect her sheets for blood on her wedding night. As the quintet’s numbers drop, darker truths emerge, and Lale’s dogged dream of escaping becomes more desperate.
Mustang’s hazy sunlit look and focus on five sisters conjures comparison to The Virgin Suicides, also about young women whose lives deteriorate under the repressive rule of other people’s sexualized paranoid projections. Erguven, who scripted Mustang with Alice Winocour and drew on her own experiences growing up between France and Turkey, cites a more vivid influence in Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Mustang breathes more freely than either, creating a world whose claustrophobic confines and optimistic possibilities feel equally palpable as you root for the youngest of these five wild horses to take the reins and ride off into a world of her own making.